Books

The wanderer, writer and suspected spy who embraced Japan

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

T.S. Eliot may have written that “April is the cruellest month,” but for Roger Pulvers, this spring is an extraordinarily felicitous one. In March, an English translation of his novel “Starsand” was published and in April, translations will be released of both an anthology of tanka poetry by Takuboku Ishikawa and “If There Were No Japan: A Cultural Memoir,” an autobiography.

Meeting Pulvers on the 24th floor of the publishing company Kodansha’s Tokyo office, his upright posture, lucid eyes and firm handshake belie the fact he was born in May 1944 — the same month the Imperial Japanese 11th Army launched its offensive at Changsha in China’s Hunan province.

A more fruitful connection to Japan began for Pulvers when he stepped out of Haneda Airport in the autumn of 1967 and felt an “instant rapport with the grammar of Japanese culture,” he says.

During his early years in Japan, when performing arts such as noh could still be traced to their rural origins, he traveled to the frozen north of Yamagata Prefecture to watch all-night performances in farmhouse theaters, returning in the summer to observe the mushiboshi (airing of masks and costumes).

Early cultural explorations took him from the pottery-making village of Koishiwara, Fukuoka Prefecture — where earth was pounded by “huge pestles that strike mortars dug into the ground” — to the Buddha-shaped rocks at Hotokegaura and sulphurous home to female shaman, Osorezan (Mount Osore), both in Aomori Prefecture.

In 1977, he sailed to the tiny Okinawan island of Hatoma, where he would spend a full month working on the manuscript of his first novel: “The Death of Urashima Taro.”

Pulvers has every right to be boastful. A playwright, theater director, novelist, translator, columnist, lecturer, TV host and scriptwriter, he has also been a literary editor and recipient of numerous literary and translation awards. In 1982, he worked as an assistant on the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” with his close friend, director Nagisa Oshima. The absence of conceit, when I bring up the subject of his accomplishments may be grounded in a statement from his memoir: “The most disliked type of person in Japan is the braggart.”

Pulvers’ path to Japan began in Poland (he is also fluent in Russian and Polish), which was to be the setting of a pivotal, albeit unexpected turning point. Studying there in 1966 on a U.S. National Student Association scholarship, Pulvers was drawn immediately to Krakow’s cinemas and theaters. All of this came to a shuddering halt with the news that a liberal American magazine planned to publish an article exposing the NSA as a front for the CIA. Spirited out of the country after being issued with an air ticket to London, his hasty recall from Krakow fits rather well into the Cold War air of intrigue present in early John le Carre novels.

Pulvers was in Paris when the ensuing scandal blew up, though keeping a low profile would prove difficult after his photo appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. His parents appear to have kept cool heads: When interviewed on a prime-time news programs, his mother insisted, “my son is a normal American. He likes sports and girls.” The incident may have lost him Poland, but was instrumental in his progress toward Japan. In his memoir there is a strong sense that our lives are ordained by chance — the random dynamics of happenstance.

Over a period of eight years, Pulvers wrote a weekly column for The Japan Times, in which he shared with readers what writer Donald Richie would have called his “lateral views” on Japan.

A recurring subject of these pieces was Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), whom Pulvers considers “one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.” He viewed the poet as a model of applied compassion, evident in the humanistic agronomy that formed the basis of his work: improving the lot of the rural poor.

Pulvers was to have the supremely gratifying experience of meeting Kenji’s younger brother, Seiroku, a number of times. It was their custom whenever they met for Seiroku to quote the first line of a Miyazawa poem and Pulvers to respond with the second — an instance of the writer’s cultural fine-tuning and linguistic acuity.

Pulvers shares with Miyazawa a faith in the regenerative power of culture. One of the beefs in his memoir, however, is that outsiders somehow miss the plurality of Japanese culture — its bifurcating energy streams — and what he refers to as the “universality of Japanese culture.”

The book is partly an attempt to expose young Japanese people to these universal elements, to illuminate paths away from the “particularly nasty nationalism” currently being promulgated in some circles.

Pulvers is just the sort of spokesman Japan needs at this time, his comments and critique distilled not simply from time spent in Japan, but a Japan life well-observed.

While working in Kyoto in 1969, he had the opportunity to meet Herman Kahn, a prominent military strategist and doomsday theorist said to have been one of the models for the character Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The young Pulvers saw in Kahn an “American patriot posing as an internationalist,” a man happy to flatter Japan if it could elicit its support for American advancement. Kahn was also the man who told Pulvers that he might like Japan but, as an American, he could never belong there.

The young writer begged to differ. Almost 50 years later, Pulvers was able to assert in his memoir, “Japan made me the person I am today.”